I retired at 35 with nearly £1m in savings – I did it by not buying new clothes and going out for cheap meals
KATIE DONEGAN, 37, and husband Alan, 43, are both retired.
They split their time between Basingstoke and travel abroad.
“Looking at my day ahead, I wondered whether to exercise or meet a friend. Like any retired person, I had plenty of free time, but unlike the majority, I had no grandkids or an older-person’s bus pass – because I’d stopped working at 35.
"I grew up in Uxbridge, where my mum Alison, now 69, was a teacher and my dad Kris, 73, a market researcher. We had enough to live comfortably, but there was very little money for fancy holidays or meals out. I attended the local comprehensive and always saved my pocket money – I loved watching it grow instead of spending it.
"At 18 I went to study maths at the University of Oxford, but I struggled and left the following year. Back home, I temped doing office admin for a while, earning £9 per hour, before going on a three-month volunteering project in January 2005 to Costa Rica, where I met Alan.
"We returned to the UK as a couple, and I began a degree in statistics at University College London, where I lived with my parents, eating cheaply and not buying new clothes, as I hated the thought of getting into debt.
"After graduating in 2008, we moved in with Alan’s mum in Hampshire so we could save for a house deposit, while I worked as an actuary earning £28,500 a year. Alan was self-employed on a variable income, teaching businesses how to do presentations.
"We ate packed lunches, drove a second-hand Skoda and invited friends over instead of going for expensive nights out. We saved hard and in November 2010 we had enough to put down a £42,000 deposit on a £167,650 two-bedroom flat in Basingstoke. We married in July 2013, keeping costs as low as possible by hiring the local community hall, emailing the invites, getting a friend to do the decorations and having a BYO bar.
'I have freedom and choice'
"By late 2014, after several promotions, I was earning £58,000. It seemed a huge amount, but I was determined to keep my outgoings low. With Alan bringing in around £63,000, we put away £3,000 in total each month.
"In 2015 I read a blog about the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) movement, which involves keeping your outgoings as low as possible and saving every penny you can. By putting those savings into index funds – buying stocks in every company available on the stock market – we could eventually live off the money it generated.
"By then, we had £291,000 in savings – Alan had been saving since 1996 and I began contributing after I graduated – and we set ourselves the goal of £1million in savings and investments within three years so we could retire.
"It wasn’t because we didn’t enjoy our jobs – it was about financial freedom and quality of life. To bring in more money, I quit my job and began working as a contractor.
"Some friends and family thought we were mad sticking with our modest flat and old car, but we were laser-focused and studied how to invest in the stock market.
"By September 2018, we had £898,000 in savings and investments. We hadn’t quite reached our goal of £1million, but we were close, and between March and April 2019 our net worth rose by £46,000 – which meant our investments were making enough for me to retire.
To many people, a big house and designer clothes signal success, but I have freedom and choice, which feels like the biggest success of all.
"Alan supported my decision to stop working, though he chose not to fully retire and still oversees his business, but isn’t involved in the day-to-day operation.
"We then had the freedom to rent out our flat and live a nomadic lifestyle, travelling everywhere from Thailand to Mexico, cycling, hiking and keeping fit. We were in New Orleans when Covid hit, which put an end to our travelling for a while, but as soon as restrictions allowed, in April 2020 we headed back to the UK.
"I decided to start the Rebel Finance School, a free 10-week online course to help people get control of their finances. I make no money from it – I just want others to understand that they can do what we did.
"Our investments now generate £65,000 a year, but we’re still not extravagant. In July this year, we were in Bogota, Colombia, and celebrated our wedding anniversary with a lavish meal, but it only cost £60. Out there I had sessions with a PT four times a week – for £12 an hour. We’re currently in Oklahoma visiting friends, and plan to go back to Colombia next month.
"There are so many incredible things you can do once you free yourself from the nine-to-five, and in the next few years I want to return to New Orleans to learn jazz piano, do a yoga retreat in India and, just for fun, train as a financial advisor.
"To many people, a big house and designer clothes signal success, but I have freedom and choice, which feels like the biggest success of all.”
- For more information on Rebel Finance School, visit Alandonegan.com/rebelfinance.
The current state pension age for women in the UK is 66.
The full basic state pension is £137.60 per week.
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